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AGO 1955 No. 99 - June 13, 1955
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Don Eastvold | 1953-1956 | Attorney General of Washington


Section 10, Chapter 73, Laws of 1955, does not authorize Port Districts to construct and operate a belt-line railroad as a common carrier.

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                                                                   June 13, 1955

Honorable Cliff Yelle
State Auditor
Legislative Building
Olympia, Washington                                                                                                                Cite as:  AGO 55-57 No. 99

Dear Sir:

            You have requested an opinion from this office as to whether chapter 73, Laws of 1955, being the latest enactment of the legislature on port districts, providing for the construction of port industrial facilities, would authorize a port to include within its plan the construction and operation of a belt-line railway, a rail system to be used for the transfer of commodities between industries and line haul railroads.

            It is our opinion that the port districts under the present law do not have authority to construct or operate a belt-line railway to be used for the transfer of commodities between the industries in the port district and the connecting line haul railroads.


            This very same question was presented in State ex rel. Huggins v. Bridges, 97 Wash. 553 (1917), when the Port of Seattle attempted to construct a belt-line railway.  The court held that the port did not have authority to operate a belt-line railway as a common carrier, since the power was not expressly  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] granted or fairly implied from the powers granted.

            Section 10, chapter 73, Laws of 1955, provides as follows:

            "* * * to provide, maintain, and operate water, light, power and fire protection facilities and services, streets, roads, bridges, highways, waterways, tracks, and rail and water transfer and terminal facilities and other harbor and industrial improvements; * * *" (Emphasis supplied)

            The underlined portion of the statute has been contained in every legislative enactment concerning port development since and including the original act, chapter 92, Laws of 1911.  It is the only direct language specifically mentioning rail facilities in any of the legislative enactments.

            The court inState ex rel. Huggins v. Bridges, supra, took this language to mean the usual facilities of a port and gave some examples of what it meant by "rail and water transfer and terminal facilities" in the following:

            "* * * we conceive that the language referred to simply means such adjuncts and appurtenances as are necessary or convenient for the transshipment of commodities between land carriers and water carriers.  Such facilities may include a spur track or switch to a dock, pier, or warehouse, and they may include the connecting track between two docks or piers or warehouses of the port commission, for its convenience.  * * *"

            On page 559, the court went on to say:

            "* * * it is sufficient to determine what powers are granted this municipal corporation by the clear intendment of the act or by necessary inference, and that nowhere is it granted the power to construct, operate and maintain railway lines, either terminal, belt, or otherwise, and to act as such a common carrier.  * * *"

             [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]

            By RCW 53.04.030 the port commission is expressly declared to be a municipal corporation of the state of Washington.  It is a fundamental proposition of law that a municipal corporation is a creature of statute and as such has only the powers as are expressly granted to it, or those powers necessarily or fairly implied or essential to the declared objects and purposes of the corporation.  State ex rel. Huggins v. Bridges, supra;Woodward v. City of Seattle, 140 Wash. 83 (1926); andState ex rel. Hill v. Port of Seattle, 104 Wash. 635 (1919).

            In State ex rel. Hill v. Port of Seattle, supra, the port district proposed to build a cold storage plant greatly in excess of the then present port district's needs.  The court in ruling against the port district said:

            "* * * It is then engaged in a strictly private business, and for that there is no warrant in the law, either by express enactment or by implication, for the rule of construction is that any doubt as to the power of a municipal corporation must be resolved against the municipality‑-only such powers as are expressly granted, or such as are necessarily incident to its granted power, will be sustained, for the policy of the law has always been to limit, rather than to extend, the proprietary functions of a municipal corporation.  * * *"

            Accord:  State ex rel. Hill v. Bridges, 87 Wash. 260 (1915); State ex rel. Huggins v. Bridges, supra; Woodward v. City of Seattle, supra; and 2 McQuillin § 10.18.

            If the legislature had intended to give the port districts authority to construct and operate a belt-line railroad it could have stated that intent in clear and unambiguous language.  Although the legislature may have increased the powers of port districts regarding other matters since the decision in the Huggins case, we do not think that fact would justify an expansion of the construction given identical language on rail facilities in that decision.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]

            It is our conclusion that port districts under present laws do not have authority to construct or operate a belt-line railway.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General

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